Rising In the East: Chicago

As we said yesterday, the 2012 edition of Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference appears poised to put a dent in the Western Conference’s recent dominance (last three MLS champs, five of last six MLS Cup finalists).

There are a number of teams in the East with lofty goals and the ability to achieve them this year. We’re not saying the Western dominance will be reversed, but don’t be surprised if there’s a noticeable shift in conference power this year.

Today, we look at the Chicago Fire.

Chicago closed last season as one of the hottest teams in the league, going 7-2-1 down the stretch. But as torrid as their closing run was, it couldn’t make up for their frigid start: The Fire won just once in their first 13 games under coach Carlos de los Cobos. He was dismissed in late May, and after new coach Frank Klopas acquired midfielders Pavel Pardo (148 caps for Mexico) and Sebastian Grazzini (an Argentine who had five goals in 11 appearances last year), the Fire became a very tough out.

They finished 9-9-16, with those 16 ties being both an MLS record (tied—appropriately—with New York) and an indication of what might have been.

This season, with Pardo and Grazzini in the fold at the start, Chicago is aiming high. “We feel we can reach the playoffs,” Klopas told MLSsoccer.com in January. “The [US] Open Cup, the Supporters’ Shield, [those are] things we think we can win. It’s great that we’re setting those goals early on.”

They’ll have their two influential midfielders for the entire season this year, but the Fire did not stand pat during the offseason. They acquired experienced Colombian midfielder Rafael Robayo, 27, from Millonarios, where he was captain and helped lead the club to the 2011 Copa Colombia title.

They picked up goalkeeper Jay Nolly, formerly of Vancouver, to spell Sean Johnson, and they added depth up top with Zimbabwean speedster Kheli Dube. He’ll start on the bench behind new signing Federico Puppo, a 25-year-old Uruguayan who has two goals in three appearances for his nation’s U-22 side, and should make for some interesting announcing sequences when he combines with Fire midfielder Marco Pappa this season.

The Fire also locked in promising striker Orr Barouch on a permanent transfer after he’d been on loan from Tigres of the Mexican top flight, and they picked up some interesting prospects in the SuperDraft, including potential Name Hall of Famers Lucky Mkosana (Dartmouth) and Hunter Jumper (UVA).

Yes, things are looking up at Toyota Park, and if the team stays healthy, it could be looking down at much of the Eastern Conference table come October.

Tomorrow: New York.

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